Chief Rabbi C K Harris

Remembering Chief Rabbi C K Harris

Cyril Harris was a people person. It was his passion to infuse the Jewish community with his unbounded love and enthusiasm for living Judaism and, while doing so, also introducing his non-Jewish colleagues and friends to its ethical and moral values.

Knowing he could not achieve his aims alone, he spent much of his time and energy forging relationships and finding allies, who would often end up becoming friends. At the same time, he was also a perfectionist and a hard taskmaster, who held others to the same high standards as himself. Many recall a harsh “slap on the wrist” followed by the cheekiest of grins.

Cyril Kitchener Harris was born in Scotland in 1936, the third of four children in a traditionally orthodox Jewish family. His grandfather was a highly respected Rabbi in Glasgow. Harris received his early education in Ayr and Glasgow, but moved to London to gain an MA degree and follow his Rabbinic training. Much of the Rabbinic training was practical, exposing him to all kinds of communal work. Harris knew from a young age that he wanted to lead communities into practising their Judaism out in the real world.

He was called to his first post at 21 years old and spent the next thirty years ministering to three major London synagogues. During that period, he also worked as a military and prison chaplain and as a student counsellor. He added broadcasting, youth training and communal administration to his skills. At the end of 1987, he was called to the post of Chief Rabbi of South Africa. a post that would become his life’s work until 2004, when illness forced him to retire.

His time as Chief Rabbi in South Africa

Rabbi Harris has been called ‘the conscience of South African Jewry’ because of the strong stance he took against apartheid and the social and economic inequality that resulted from it. Others have referred to him as ‘an activist in a Rabbi’s garb’, but for Harris this strong social engagement was only a natural consequence flowing from his beliefs.

During his induction address as Chief Rabbi in Johannesburg, Harris told the congregation that it was high time that they began accepting the fact that Jewish tradition was opposed to any form of racial discrimination. As he later said: “People were in shock. They didn’t want to rock the boat. But the young members of the community, who had come to demonstrate against me, immediately came to my aid.”

About the time of the first democratic election, Harris together with Dr Bertie Lubner, OBM, founded the organization Afrika Tikkun, Hebrew for “repairing”. In very practical ways he involved the Jewish community in reaching out to those in need with a variety of upliftment schemes. This eventually led to the establishment of Tikkun’s five centres of excellence, caring for children and their families from cradle to career.

Over the years, Harris became a close friend of Nelson Mandela, who described him as “offering the white hand of friendship” to the black community. Like Mandela, he is said to have helped bridge the gap between the black majority and the white minority, leading up to the transition to a democratic South Africa.

During his time in office Harris strived to nurture a modern orthodox community while preserving the unity of South African Jews. He also worked to develop interfaith relations and foster the relationships of the South African Jewish community with Israel.

More about his life and work

The life and work of Rabbi Harris has been captured in several books.